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Sunday, 31 March, 2002, 15:53 GMT 16:53 UK
Musharraf signals referendum plan
General Musharraf raises a fist with leaders of Pakistan-administered Kashmir
Kashmir is a key plank in General Musharraf's platform
Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has made it clear that he intends to legitimise his rule through a referendum.

The poll will give Pakistanis an opportunity to say if they want him to stay on as their president for another five years after parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

I want to know whether or not the nation requires me

General Pervez Musharraf
A date for the referendum is expected to be announced within a week.

General Musharraf, who led a bloodless coup in October 1999, ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's elected government, charging it with corruption and abuse of power.

In recent weeks, he has met the leaders of some of Pakistan's political parties to sound them out on his referendum plan.

Some political groups have offered their support, but the political parties of Nawaz Sharif and another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, have described it as an attempt to legitimise the role of the military in any future civilian set up.

Pakistan's independent human rights commission has called it a farcical exercise, and has urged General Musharraf to restore an undiluted democracy by holding free and fair elections.

Determined move

President Musharraf does not appear to have been deterred by this negative reaction.

Opponents of President Musharraf's pro-coalition policy burn US flag
Religious extremism remains a major worry
The president was quoted by the daily, The News, as saying, "I believe in taking a calculated risk. I want to know whether or not the nation requires me."

His plan is to ask electors if they support his reform agenda and the campaign against religious extremism, and if they would like him to continue as the country's president.

A yes vote would mean he would be president for another five years, thus bypassing the constitutional provision under which a head of state can only be elected by the national and provisional parliaments.

General Musharraf says he has strong faith in the wisdom of the people of Pakistan and, according to him, they alone can decide his future role in the country's political affairs.

Defending policies

In the past, General Musharraf has talked about the need to complete the political, economic and social reforms initiated by his government.

Protesters demonstrate against Pakistan's campaign against militancy
A vocal opposition challenges the general
His support for the US-led campaign against terrorism has won him support from Western countries and donor agencies.

His crackdown on Muslim militants has won praise at home and abroad, but religious extremism remains a potent force in Pakistan.

And his support for separatists active in Indian-administered Kashmir has led to a large number of troops being deployed along the tense Indo-Pakistani border.

But the lifting of sanctions, the flow of new aid and resumption of military exchanges with the United States have both benefited Pakistan and strengthened the general's image.

Correspondents say President Musharraf would be following in the footsteps of General Zia-ul Haq, who held a referendum after ousting another elected government and stayed in power for 11 years.

They say the timing of a referendum could not be better for the general as his political opponents are weak and divided and could not mount a credible challenge.

See also:

21 Mar 02 | South Asia
Referendum rumours rife in Pakistan
13 Mar 02 | South Asia
Musharraf warns opposition leaders
24 Jan 02 | South Asia
Rural backing for Pakistan reform
17 Jan 02 | South Asia
Pakistan's political vacuum
14 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Pakistan
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